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Driven Dotty

The Psychopathology of Everyday Driving

by Mark Simpson

Do you fantasise about roadside executions when someone fails to indicate?

Find yourself talking back sarcastically to motorway dot matrix signs talking down to you in HUGE LETTERS?

Abandon all hope for humanity whenever you visit the Hobbesian horror of your supermarket car park?

Hate cyclists when you’re driving – and motorists when you’re cycling?

Are you surprised and hurt when your wise advice and running commentary on your friend/partner’s driving isn’t gratefully received?

If so, then Mark Simpson’s Driven Dotty, an acerbic, confessional exploration of the psychopathology of everyday brum-bruming, the strange lusts and loathings that possess us when we get behind the wheel, is for you.

Or perhaps for someone you know, but wish you didn’t.

Driven Dotty is a last hurrah for the human-driven motor car. Before such silliness was abolished by automation and algorithms.

Driven Dotty, a collection of my blog-musings on the madness of motoring, is available on PDF for download for free on the link below – but a donation would be nice. Say a quid? *flashes headlights in acknowledgement, despite Highway Code*

 

VAIN 1 – In Praise of Personalised Plates

By Mark Simpson

Personalised number plates are the pits. The egotism of them! The silliness of them! The waste of them! The motoring equivalent of a sovereign necklace, their only value is warning everyone that the driver ahead is a BI6 DCK.

Or so I used to think. And I suspect many of you may have done so too.

Personalised plates or ‘vanity plates’ as they are sometimes called are booming. According to the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency almost 350,000 registrations were sold over the past year. More than four times the total in the mid-1990s – earning a pretty £102 million for the treasury.

It’s estimated that as many as 20% of cars are now fitted with personalised plates, up from less than 1% a few decades ago. Having a vanity plate no longer means you must be a plonker. Unless you think every fifth person you meet is a plonker. In which case you are probably the plonker.

To make matters worse for the vanity plate hater, there has been a 20-fold rise in the value of rare plates over the last two decades. ‘One and two’ plates (one number, two letters) that were purchased for £3000-5000 in the early 90s are now worth a cool c. £60,000. Very rare plates meanwhile can fetch absurd sums. Last year an ‘007’ plate from Guernsey fetched £240,000 at public auction. A couple of years ago ’25 O’ – coveted by 250 GTO owners – sold for £518,000.

Vanity plates add to the gaiety of the nation, are increasingly popular, raise money for the Treasury – £2.3 billion since they began to be sold in 1989 – and can represent a very good investment. In addition to being something you’ll never have to go back to check when it comes to entering your registration at a car park ticket machine or checking in at a hotel.

So why the hate? Envy may be part of it – and many of us can’t afford private plates and so will happily look for reasons to discount people who can. But we don’t necessarily hate people for having flash, or modded cars. Both of which are attempts to ‘make a statement’ and achieve ‘status’. Big exhausts, low suspensions, klaxons and even millionaire marques tend to make us smile rather than spit.

I suspect it’s because we tend to personalised plates as a form of cheating. Blasphemy, even. By default, a UK registration plate will accompany a vehicle throughout its lifetime. It is not attached to the owner. Unique as DNA, it is also usually the only bit of the car that is personalised – but not, we seem to think, by the owner. But rather, by the DVLA. Otherwise known as God. Which, by the way, bans the word ‘GOD’ from personalised number plates.

The DVLA giveth, and the DVLA taketh away.

Likewise, cars used by the reigning monarch – The Defender of the Faith – on official business have no registration number.

Perhaps it’s a hangover from the age of deference and feudalism, but many of us, myself included until I actually started researching the subject, seem to think in effect that number plates should only be allocated not purchased.

Registering vehicle and fitting a registration mark has been compulsory in the UK since 1903, in order to make it easy to trace a vehicle involved in an accident or law-breaking – and also easier to tax them. A kind of motoring Doomsday Book. Originally the only plates allowed to be transferred were ordinary registrations. But in 1989 the DVLA began selling personalized registrations unrelated to the registration districts, opening the egomaniacal flood gates.

In the age of ‘personal branding’ on social media and in fact all walks of life, it seems likely that personalised number plates are only going to become even more common. When people obsess over personalising their mobiles, why spend much more money on something you are going to be seen driving/wearing if it isn’t going to have your signature on it?

The nearest I came to having a ‘personalised’ number plate was when I happened to buy a used car with a registration that began with my first initial, followed by my (then) age. The second part started with my second initial. No one else would ever know it was ‘personalised’ – and in fact it was only after I bought the car that I realised the significance myself. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. It made the car feel more ‘mine’. So much so that when the new owner sent me a photo of it I felt a little bit jealous – of the plate.

Not that this stopped me still dissing people with properly personalised number plates. After all, mine had arrived by divine DVLA/Exchange & Mart lottery. Theirs by way of some grubby financial arrangement.

Of course, personalised plates can sometimes be too personal. DVLA censors meet every six months to decide on potentially offensive registration plates, and there is a long list of banned and suppressed combinations for political, racial, sexual and religious reasons. Some – such as BI6 DCK – are banned simply because of poor taste.

The DVLA might not actually be God, you see, but it is a bit like your maiden auntie.

 

Smartening Up – Or Dumbing Down?

Mark Simpson on how hard shoulders are being given… the hard shoulder

Hard shoulders don’t sound very inviting – and often look very unloved and untidy. But you may miss them when they’ve gone.

The Transport Secretary just announced that 32 miles of hard shoulder will be axed from the M4 between Hayes and Theale as part of an ‘upgrade’ that converts the hard-shoulder to a fourth lane.

Earlier this year, another twenty miles of hard shoulder disappeared from our motorway network as the latest stretch of ‘smart motorway’ opened on a section of the M1, between junctions 31 near Worksop and 28 near Mansfield.

By way of exchange, the more than 95,000 vehicles a day using it will benefit from an extra, fourth lane – as well 100% CCTV monitoring and information about traffic conditions displayed via overhead electronic variable messaging signs (VMS) – and variable speed limits designed to avoid traffic queues and keep traffic flowing. Journey times should be shorter and more reliable. At least for a few years.

For those experiencing a breakdown, running out of fuel – or a health emergency – there are now ‘refuge’ areas instead of the trusty hard shoulder. However, you need to be careful where your big end goes, or your dodgy lunch, since the refuges are a rather lengthy 2.5KM apart.

You will also have to hope there is no one else already occupying the refuge area (including foreign lorry drivers who reportedly sometimes use them to kip in), since there isn’t a lot of room. Additionally, because they don’t have a slip road, once your car is repaired or your lunch lost, you will have to wait for someone from the Highways Agency to come and stop the traffic to let you out.

This is the future of motorway driving in the UK. In addition to several currently under construction, there are ten more smart upgrades planned across England as part of a £1.5B investment. By 2021 the DoT promises there will be ‘292 extra lane miles added to motorways’. Given that they will be full time all-lane running, this also means that our motorways will permanently lose more than 300 miles of hard shoulder in the next decade or so.

It’s now ten years since the first smart motorway opened in the UK, between junctions 4 and 3A on the M42 in the West Midlands. Back then however they were called ‘managed motorways’.

Perhaps having taken some marketing advice, since 2014 the DoT now calls managed motorways ‘smart motorways’. A smart motorway – which by definition is always better than a ‘dumb’ one – is where active traffic management (ATM) techniques are deployed: these include variable speed limits and hard-shoulder running (either permanently or only at busy times). There are three types: ‘controlled motorway’, ‘dynamic hard shoulder running’ and ‘all-lane running’.

A controlled motorway has variable speed limits without hard-shoulder running, such as on the M25 from J27 to J30.

‘Dynamic hard shoulder running’ motorway has variable speed-limits with part-time hard-shouldering in busy periods. These have a solid white line differentiating the hard shoulder from the main carriageway, and overhead gantries displaying a red ‘X’ over the lane when it is closed to traffic. DHSR has been extended to sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6 and M62.

‘All-lane running’, variable speed limits with the hard-shoulder converted to a permanent running lane, can be found on sections of the M6, M62 and M25. This is the new standard for all new smart motorway schemes – ‘dynamic hard shoulder running’ seems to have been a softening up exercise, getting the public ready for eliminating hard shoulders altogether on smart motorways.

So why have hard shoulders become suddenly so unnecessary – and so cannibalised by our motorway network?

Because of course smart motorways are much cheaper than road-widening (smart motorways are ‘widened’ within the existing boundaries of the motorway), much less politically and environmentally costly than new motorways, and they are supposed to take much less time to construct. Though people enduring 50mph average speed cameras on the M1 for the past few years while it was ‘smartened’ might disagree.

In 2007 it was estimated that installing ATM on UK motorways would take c.2 years at a cost of £5-15 million per mile – compared with 10 years and £79 million for widening.

Not everyone is convinced that smart motorways are so smart, however. Parliament’s Transport Select Committee recently published some feedback criticisms, such as the distance between refuge areas, and the frequency of gantries (they can be every 500m).

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents have also expressed concern that emergency services would take longer to reach an incident – but the Highways Agency rejected this, citing the 5000 miles of dual carriageway that doesn’t have a hard shoulder.

For its part the AA has expressed concerns about breakdowns in lane one, saying it believes that the risk to a vehicle stopped there at night is too great to accept. Then again, perhaps this may be something to do with the fact the AA is not allowed to attend broken down vehicles in a running lane.

Advocates of smart motorways also point to studies which suggest that they’re safer than un-managed motorways with hard shoulders. Though if you’ve ever seen a drowsy articulated lorry ahead of you wander half way across the hard shoulder in a cloud of dust before suddenly turning back onto the main carriageway, it’s difficult not to wonder if the smaller ‘margin’ for error on smart motorways means that it’s just a question of time and mileage before there is a seriously nasty pile-up.

But whatever you or I or even the AA may think of them, smart motorways are here to stay and you’ll be seeing a lot more of them – and fewer hard shoulders. Of course, traffic volumes are only likely to continue to rise, eventually choking the smart motorways – and there won’t be a hard shoulder left to cannibalise.

But at that point a hidden appeal of smart motorways to politicians may reveal itself – with their gantries, CCTV and digital cameras they already have a lot of the infrastructure needed to introduce road charging.

And although unpopular now, when we run out of hard shoulders, charging may seem like the ‘smart’ – or only – option.

How to drive on a smart motorway

Whose Road Is it Anyway?

Mark Simpson on the tarmac war between cyclists and drivers

Like many drivers, I hate cyclists. They’re in your way. They’re too slow. They’re too erratic. They’re too self-righteous. They get away with murder.

But when I’m on my pushbike, I hate drivers. They’re up your arse. They’re too fast. They’re too aggressive. They’re too impatient. They’re murderers.

So you could say I have a balanced view.

As a cyclist I envy the way that drivers are dry and warm and protected by a metal box, picking their noses. I hate the way they can overtake me without having to break an honest sweat – polluting the environment instead.

As a driver, I envy the freedom and fresh-air healthiness of cyclists, the way they filter up to the front of the traffic queue, and don’t have to pay anything, or take any tests to ride their pushbike in their Day-Glo underwear on Her Majesty’s highway.

And of course, in today’s urban/suburban traffic it’s quite likely that you’ll find yourself at a red light facing the lycra buttocks you took so much trouble to overtake and make taste your exhaust two minutes ago.

When you consider how much running a car costs – and at such moments you really do – this can be a bit humiliating.

Little surprise then that a recent survey of UK drivers found that three quarters of them think that cyclists should have to get a licence before they are allowed on the road alongside cars.

While nearly half (42%) thought that cyclists should only be allowed to use the pavement. This however is currently a fineable offence – though one that seems hardly enforced. When I’m a pedestrian, I hate cars and cyclists.

The survey also found that half of drivers agreed with the statement: ‘Cyclists should all have their saddles confiscated’. Okay, I made that one up.

To be fair to drivers, there are a lot more cyclists around these days, on roads that are a lot more choked – and ‘calmed’, that is, narrowed – than before. It’s increasingly difficult to safely overtake cyclists in urban areas. There are more cycle lanes, but often they’re not used because of poor layout or maintenance.

Sometimes drivers must feel as if cyclists are being used by traffic management planners as 21st Century versions of the guys with red flags that had to walk in front of the first motorcars.

Also, it needs to be admitted that a significant proportion of bi-pedallists don’t seem to think the Highway Code applies to them. And because a license isn’t required to ride a bike, and because a pushbike doesn’t have a registration plate, that’s kind of  true.

Yes, cyclists may be fined £30 for jumping a red light – but only if there’s an actual bobby stood on the other side of the lights with time on their hands. Frankly, you’ve more chance of meeting a unicorn than a uniform. Or seeing a cyclist giving hand signals.

Some years ago, in a fit of madness I bought a moped. But I quickly got rid of it when I discovered that it was much slower around town than using my pushbike. Because it was wider and heavier than my bike I couldn’t get to the front of the queue so easily. And because it had a registration I couldn’t always take the ‘shortest route’….

Drivers today have also noticed that cyclists today have become a lot more assertive. 52% of drivers have had an ‘altercation’ with cyclists – and 35% said they had been on the receiving end of ‘road rage’ abuse from the pedal-power people.

Who nowadays often have helmet-cams: ‘YOU’RE ON CAMERA, MATE!!’.

We’ve all seen those shaming YouTube clips of drivers behaving badly, overtaking much too close – the Highway Code stipulates ‘a car’s width’ – and then getting shirty or outright violent because the cyclist shouted at them. Usually in Essex: ‘WHY WERE YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD THEN, YOU F***CKIN C***HNT?!’

A surprising number of drivers seem to be unaware that cyclists are advised to cycle away from the gutter and, according to Transport for London: ‘If the road is too narrow for vehicles to pass you safely, it may be better to ride in the middle of the lane to prevent dangerous overtaking’.

Yes, sometimes there does appear to be a kind of mobile class war going on: the white collar cyclist with almost a passive-aggressive Judge Dredd/Judy complex, chasing after loutish van drivers and goading them into saying or doing something stupid or just criminal on camera.

But generally these clips serve a useful purpose: they allow drivers to see the road from the cyclists’ wobbly, exposed POV. In 2014, 113 cyclists died on our roads. According to a survey conducted last year, cyclists experience a ‘very scary’ incident on average once a week.

And the pedal warrior footage also remind drivers that although they may be riding round in powerful soundproofed, climate-controlled armour with seat-belts and airbags – while the cyclist is just a crumple zone wearing a plastic hat – that there are still potential consequences for their behaviour.

That said, road safety is ultimately the responsibility of all road users. Cyclists and drivers, the vertebrates and invertebrates of the highway, have more in common than just the road they share.

They always think they’re in the right.

AA advice to drivers and cyclists on sharing the road safely

AA Highway Code for Cyclists

Bloody drivers!

Bloody cyclists!

 

 

Signal Failure: What Not Indicating Indicates

Mark Simpson on the capital offence of failing to indicate

‘That’s alright. Don’t bother indicating. I can read your imbecilic mind!!’

I often find myself coming over all Victor Meldrew when confronted with the worst offence in the entire motoring universe. Failing to indicate.

Well, OK, it might not be the worst, but it’s certainly one of the most annoying.

Yes, I know. Not bothering to indicate does save you the Herculean effort of moving your hand an inch or two every now and again. And it makes it much easier for you to cut someone up. Also, what’s the point of going to all that trouble of indicating if it just means that you then have to turn the ruddy thing off almost straight away?

Failing to signal is not just lazy and rude. It’s dangerous. The US Society of Automotive Engineers estimates that US drivers fail to indicate an impressive two billion ‘FU’ times a day, and that this causes up to two million crashes a year – twice the number of accidents caused by ‘distracted driving’, e.g. using a phone.

Regardless of the risk, the failure to communicate your intentions to other road users makes life more difficult for everyone. On the motorway, the habit of so many drivers for changing lanes without indicating, or worse, indicating after changing lanes (‘See! I DID indicate!’) – or not bothering to let you know they’re about to exit as they mysteriously decelerate – makes long journeys seem a lot longer.

And also, perhaps, lonelier. Indicators are most of the time the only way of communicating with other drivers.

Perhaps it’s because I drive a small car, but there seems to be a direct correlation between the size of a vehicle and the drivers’ propensity to signaphobia. The bigger the car the bigger the damn they don’t give.

Then there’s the endless fun to be had at a junction when someone likes to keep you guessing which way they intend to turn. Or even better, they give no ‘indication’ that they are going to turn at all. Which is one of the reasons why failing to indicate is something that affects pedestrians – and their toes – as well as other road users.

And then we have the Brownian motion of today’s roundabouts. So apparently loathe are drivers to communicate their intentions that just closing your eyes and holding your breath and going ‘WHEEEE!!!’ seems to be the most popular approach.

In fact, the only time you can be absolutely sure that someone will use their indicators is when they want you to let them into a queue of traffic. It’s not an indicator, it’s more like a begging tin. Sometimes followed by the brief use of hazard warning lights to communicate ‘Cheers Guv!’.

The good old Highway Code tells us that ‘signals warn and inform other road users, including pedestrians, of your intended actions’. For signaphobes of course it is other road users and pedestrians’ responsibility to guess their intentions.

It goes on:

‘Give clear signals in plenty of time, having checked it is not misleading to signal at that time’

‘Use them to advise other road users before changing course or direction, stopping or moving off.’

‘Cancel them after use.’

The number of people who don’t use their indicators seems to be almost matched by the number who leave them on after a rare occasion they did use them – probably when they wanted someone to let them into a queue of traffic a week previously.

Such is my detestation of failing to indicate that I do it when there are no other road users or pedestrians around. Partly because it’s possible that I have missed them, even when driving across, say, the Australian outback. But mostly because I know how easy it is to get in a bad habit – and how difficult it is to cancel one when started.

Frankly, at my stage of life it’s also a useful reminder to me that I intended to turn off at the next junction.

So imagine my horror when I realised in researching this article that I have regularly been failing to indicate properly at roundabouts. For years. Probably decades.

I was aware that if you wanted to take the first exit to the left you indicated left on your approach. I was also aware that if you wanted to exit to the right, or going full circle you needed to indicate right – and then left after you have passed the exit before the one you want. And was of course scrupulous in my observance.

But – the shame! – I didn’t realise that if you were going ‘straight over’ a roundabout (that is, the second exit) or taking any other ‘intermediate exit’ you needed to indicate left after you have passed the exit before the one you want.

I’m mortified by this discovery. By rights I should drag myself out of my own car and shoot myself by the roadside.

But then again, I’m sure other road users and pedestrians were able to read my mind….

How Many NYC Drivers Don’t Signal? from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

The Driverless Driver

Driving is a wonderfully useful thing. It gets you from A to B without breaking a sweat, without getting cold or wet, and without having to listen to other people eat crisps ludicrously loudly, or watch them spill their large, very sugary Virgin Trains tea all over the table you’re sharing with them.

There is however a drawback. Driving involves decisions. And attention. And having to turn this thing in front of you called a ‘steering wheel’. When you would rather be picking your nose, chatting to your passenger in an animated fashion about office gossip, or finding that Adele track you haven’t listened to for at least a week. Or perhaps just having a nice open-eyed snooze.

Lots and lots of drivers really don’t like driving and proper driverless cars are still a few years off. What to do? Fortunately, there is a solution to the problem – become your own driverless car.

It’s really very easy. Though it does make life very difficult for everyone else. Just find a motorway, find the middle lane and then make yourself at home! No need to turn the wheel much again, look in your mirrors or engage your brain until you need to exit the motorway. Suddenly, without indicating.

Or at least, that used to be the solution. However, the much-publicised conviction of a van driver in Leeds Magistrate Court last week threatens to wake middle lane hogs from their cozy slumber, wrapped up between the outside and inside lanes. The court was told he was driving a Citroen Berlingo van at 60MPH and repeatedly refused to move out of the central lane of the M62 near Huddersfield.

In what will sound a frustratingly familiar scenario to many motorway users, police said drivers had to brake and swerve to overtake the blissfully unaware Berlingo and that he had numerous opportunities to move back into the left hand lane but failed to do so, choosing instead to drive in ‘an inconsiderate manner’. (Though you can be sure that like most people confronted with blatant road-hoggery they used a ruder expression at the time.)

The law was changed in 2013 giving the police more powers to issue on-the-spot fines for driving misdemeanours such as hogging the middle lane, tailgating, undertaking and failure to give way at junctions. Figures published last year revealed that 10,000 motorists have been fined under these new powers for dealing with ‘anti-social driving’. Though many drivers moan that there doesn’t appear to have been much of a decline in middle-lane hoggery, particularly in the South East where most lane-hogging seems to happen.

The bloody-minded Berlingo driver is believed to be the first to be convicted in court of the offence. It’s not clear why the case came to court rather than being dealt with by an on-the-spot fine. Perhaps he refused to pay and decided to have his day in court. If so he seems to have changed his mind about being Britain’s most famous Middle Lane Hog – Mr Berlingo failed to turn up, was convicted in his absence and ordered to pay a £500 fine, £400 in costs and a £40 victim surcharge and handed five penalty points.

£1000 and five penalty points is a bit more than Days Inn charge for a snooze on Her Majesty’s highway, so who knows? Maybe indicating and actually turning the steering wheel every now and again will become more common on motorways now.

It seems unlikely though that all middle lane hogs are going to suddenly discover the existence of the left lane, particularly as traffic congestion continues to increase. And the (self) righteous anger of other drivers at the selfishness of middle lane hoggers is unlikely to go away.

After all, whatever lane they’re in, all other cars on the road are ‘hogging’ it. Unlike yours. Deep down, all drivers think that the road they’re driving on was made just for them. The real crime of the middle lane hogger is to not even try to hide that presumption.

 

Fine Dining Over the Fast Lane

Mark Simpson on the lost glamour of Leicester Forest East services

Leicester Forest East, situated – or rather, squeezed – between J21 and J21a on the M1, contains a slightly interesting paradox to those sufficiently undulled by the boredom of motorway driving and an entire family pack of Haribos to notice it.

Not its appearance, which now looks like a very average 1960s motorway services that has seen better days, but because it is in actual geographical fact west of Leicester and there is no Leicester Forest. On investigation however, it turns out not to be a Harry Potter-esque Platform 9 ¾ situation. The name is down to the slightly disappointing discovery that the services are located east of somewhere called Leicester Forest West.

And that, you might think, is all there is Leicester Forest East. Along with the usual bland modern quick fix carbs/fats/caffeine outlets, including a Burger King, KFC, Baskin Robbins, Dunkin’ Donuts, Krispy Kreme, Harry Ramsden and a Starbucks.

But you’d be wrong. Very wrong. LFE has a past. And what a past! When it opened fifty years ago on February 15, 1966, LFE was the most glamorous place to eat on the motorway – and very possibly the whole of Leicestershire.

The kitchen at LFE

“Shall I point at something else now? Or do you have enough pointing shots?”

It boasted a 692 seat Terence Conran-designed silver-service restaurant occupying the bridge above the carriageway, called ‘The Captain’s Table’, fitted out with luxury carpets, ocean liner décor and a deck-like balcony. There were even waiters in sailor suits and a pianist on a baby Grand. And no, I’m not making this up.

Today, motorway gourmands stopping here have to make do with a pricey panini from Waitrose.

Although it now looks like a fairly non-descript unloved 1960s giant concrete bus-stop, LFE was an architectural novelty in the UK when it was built. Based on an Italian design used on the Autostrade, and placing terraces at each end of the two-storey bridge-come-amenity building, it was rather ‘Mod’.

Frozen food retailer Ross had won the Ministry of Transport tender with their audacious design and a promise to bring fine dining to M1 motorists. They had decided that motorway services represented an exciting new business opportunity as well as a good way to publicise themselves – hence the fishy-themed restaurant, and their efforts to make the food as good as possible. By all accounts, they succeeded.

In a nice touch, the first private motorist customer, Andrew Thorp of Church Road, Leicester, and the first lorry driver, Derek Lashbrook, of Greenwich, London received a voucher entitling them to a free meal there every 15 Feb until 1991.

But the worth of those vouchers expired much quicker than anyone anticipated – the golden days and the good intentions didn’t last very long. With more and more motorway services opening in the late 60s, the ‘glamour’ and novelty of eating on the motorway rapidly declined into a chore – while competition rapidly increased. And the competition was on price, not quality. Inevitably, the Captain’s Table hit the iceberg of economic realities and began to go under. It soon found itself sharing the commanding bridge at LFE with other service amenities, while the distinctive terrace was closed for ‘health and safety’ reasons.

In the 1970s, Ross reluctantly gave up on glamour altogether and introduced a betting shop, ice cream stall and a separate Happy Eater restaurant. Eventually Ross threw in the motorway services towel and sold LFE to the current operator, Welcome Break in 1985 – who are of course a byword for culinary delight….

While it’s almost certainly a more convenient and much quicker pit-stop with more choice in its modern ‘food court’ than back in 1966, it’s apparent that the glamour of LFE – rated 3/5 burgers by this motorway services review site – has long since fled. As it has of course from all other motorway services.

But sometimes it is still occasionally glimpsed, usually in the newsagents, buying crisps and a fizzy drink. In a recent BBC report on LFE’s 50th birthday, Suzanne Chapman, who works in the newsagents, recalled the celebrities she’s served: ‘Terry Waite, Steve Davies, they’ve all been through’. Some were shyer than others: ‘David Frost came, but he didn’t come to the till, he sent his driver and stood in the background.’

Perhaps Frost, who of course became a celebrity in the same decade as Leicester Forest East, was busy reminiscing about the Captain’s Table and the waiters in sailor’s outfits.

Gauging the Future

Mark Simpson on the information overload facing today’s drivers

Before we all started zooming around cyberspace and endlessly fiddling with games, apps and cool lock screens on our smartphones, the most exciting sense of interactive information – of hardcore control – that most people who weren’t actually fighter pilots or engineers or micromanaging dictators got was from the dials on their car dashboards.

Needles and lights and counters monitoring speed, revolutions per second, oil temperature, oil pressure, water temperature, outside temperature, inside temperature, humidity, mileage, voltage, fuel, time – all facing towards the Sun King (or Queen), the big boss making it all happen, aka The Driver.

Constantly, relentlessly conveying information to you so that you can make correct, life-or death decisions as you slice through time and space. And so that you can feel incredibly important.

Driving is the original God game.

As a sprog, when my dad was in the market for a new car, I would scrutinise the brochures he brought home and tot up how many dials, lights and switches there were on the dashboard. Whichever car had the most was clearly the most car and I would then nag and needle my dad to get it. Wisely, he always ignored me – otherwise we would probably have ended up with a Ford every time.

Steering wheel instruments

The driver’s pilot fantasy perfectly – and bloody dangerously – encapsulated.

To this day I’m still incredibly jealous that a school chum’s dad’s car had a dial that ours didn’t – I think it was for windspeed, or something. This may explain the unnatural pleasure that a dial that looked like it belonged in a Second World War Italian fighter plane and mounted right in the centre of the dashboard of my first car, a Fiat 127 Sport, gave me.

But times change. As the level of technology and safety gear has rapidly increased in cars, so has the amount of information that you are inflicted with, whether you want it or not. Paradoxically, increased automation – traction control, cruise control, lane-keeping, collision-warning etc. etc. – has meant more information about the automation. And of course, climate control, sat-nav, Bluetooth calling, and infotainment systems have also increasingly hogged our dashboards and distracted our attention further and further from the road ahead.

Drivers have changed as well. They are much less likely today to be ‘gaugist’ boy racers such as I was twenty years or so ago – and much more likely to be women. And in a world where information overload is almost universal and round the clock thanks to our constant pocket companions more and more drivers find the level of persistent information and ‘direct control’ model of car instrumentation, where each instrument and function has its own display/control, less and less flattering and instead something of an insult.

Our brains have been tamed by algorithms which tell us that we are God, but do most of the godlike work for us.

This is what excites people about the idea of the Apple Car. They are hoping that not only will it be really cool, and really compatible with their iPhone for once, but that it will have a dashboard that is ‘intuitive’ – like their mobile phone and thus the rest of their lives. The cluttered 20th Century unreconstructedness of current car dashboards are a terrible shock. It’s like walking into a pop-up micro-brewery in your man-bun and finding Oliver Reed at the bar.

This male designer recently wondered aloud why car dashboards are all ‘so wrong’. Essentially, he believes the ‘direct control’ model of car UI has reached the end of the road and that information and controls should only be offered when needed: ‘My car’s temperature is only important to me if it is trending in the wrong direction. Alert me when that happens, otherwise I don’t need to know.’

A lofty, senior executive (‘don’t bother me with trivia’) outlook is one that probably many people today, used to delegating responsibility to algorithms, would agree with. Though when he also says he doesn’t need to know things like his speed ‘all the time’ you have to remember that he lives in California, where ‘driving’ is a very relative, very conditional concept. Or as he puts it: ‘My morning commute is all about Zen, so my dashboard should be blank.’

But the future is already here. Or at least a slightly retro version of it that appeals to me. The new Audi TT’s digital instrument panel combines the functions of a central multimedia interface monitor and conventional instrument cluster in a huge 12.3 inch TFT display where you need it, right in front of you behind the steering wheel. So basic driver information, such as speed and revs, as well as directions, maps and music and calling info are finally in one sensible easily, quickly glanced-at place rather than scattered all over.

Although it does away with analogue gauges, it reassuringly renders the speedo and rev counter dials in virtual form either side of the display, combining the best of both worlds – digital-analogue. Audi have dubbed it a ‘virtual cockpit’ – the TT is a ‘sporty’ car that attracts ‘sporty’ drivers – and it appears to merge the experience of driving with playing a computer game. Which totally gets my sadult vote.

The UI control menus are described by Audi as ‘intuitive’, but probably won’t satisfy our Californian designer or most iPhone enthusiasts, since much of the on-screen info is persistent (you will know what speed and revs you’re doing at all times). Worse, there’s no touch screen.

There are however two modes: ‘classic view’, in which the speedo and rev counter are big grapefruit dominant; and ‘infotainment’ in which the map and ‘tainment stuff dominates and the gauges shrivel to the size of plums.

I think I’ll go with ‘classic view’.

classic

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